RAND Report Shows Little Evidence of a Coherent al Qaeda Strategy for U.S. Attack

For Release

February 28, 2007

There is little consistent evidence that al Qaeda has a specific strategic plan for attacking targets within the United States, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today.

Although al Qaeda succeeded in attacking the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, subsequent terrorist strikes have been outside the United States and were carried out by groups affiliated with – but not necessarily directed by – al Qaeda's core leadership, RAND researchers found.

Even if al Qaeda still had the capability to attack within the United States, the terrorist organization has given few clues about the types of venues it would seek to target and why, the RAND study found.

“It is entirely possible that the many anti-American pronouncements al Qaeda's leaders have made since 9/11 are merely expressions of their hatred toward the United States and that any future attacks might reflect little more than that hatred,” said lead study author Martin Libicki. “Such attacks could actually have little to do with achieving anything for al Qaeda.”

The RAND report examined four hypotheses that might explain al Qaeda's targeting preferences in the United States:

  • The coercion hypothesis states that al Qaeda would use terrorist attacks to cause pain in an attempt to coerce the United States into leaving the Islamic world.
  • The damage hypothesis contends that al Qaeda seeks to reduce the ability of the United States to interfere in the Islamic world, largely through assaults designed to cause severe economic disruption.
  • The rally hypothesis presumes that al Qaeda would use terrorist attacks within the United States to mobilize supporters and polarize relationships between the United States and the Islamic world.
  • The franchise hypothesis posits that although al Qaeda retains its influence and reputation, it lacks the resources necessary to carry out attacks and therefore would use affiliated groups to do so.

Researchers for RAND, a nonprofit research organization, found that al Qaeda may well find that its most attractive targets within the United States are those that can simultaneously create fear and damage the U.S. economy – reflecting both the coercion and damage hypotheses.

The RAND report also examined a range of potential attacks that would be consistent with the coercion and damage hypotheses. Researchers concluded that two types of attacks would make powerful contributions to such strategic goals: either targeting America's food chain or industry, or using “dirty bombs” involving radiological dispersal devices.

“Either of these kinds of attacks would have the potential to cause severe social dislocation and economic damage,” said the study co-author Peter Chalk. “If they came on the heels of a widespread or suicide bombing campaign they could also possibly overwhelm the country's emergency management infrastructure.”

In order to determine which of the four potential strike hypotheses al Qaeda was most likely to use, researchers analyzed major attacks by the terrorist organization and its affiliates over the last decade. They also examined statements made by the group, and consulted with al Qaeda experts along the way.

Ultimately, the report finds that most attacks had more than one goal. For example, the Sept. 11 attacks caused significant human and economic casualties while also serving to rally al Qaeda supporters.

Researchers also concluded that al Qaeda is most likely to pick a future target in the United States that would meet similar strategic goals. However, if the next attacks are carried out by local jihadists with little or no direct input from al Qaeda, the assaults will most likely reflect the “franchise” group's beliefs.

Still, researchers were careful to note, al Qaeda's current resources have been severely limited and may force the group to rely on suicide bombers or attacks on poorly defended “soft” targets.

The research team, which also included Melanie Sisson, concluded that while al Qaeda has carried out numerous attacks in the last decade, there is no direct evidence that such attacks are part of a comprehensive plan.

“Al Qaeda has not taken great pains to lay out its targeting methodology or rationale in great detail, so the assumption that the organization has a well-thought approach to targeting is exactly that – an assumption,” Libicki said. “Nevertheless, the coercion and damage theories remain, in our opinion, the best working guide to anticipating a next attack, and the counter-terrorism community should continue to test these and other targeting strategies against future evidence.”

The report, “Exploring Terrorist Targeting Preferences,” is available at www.rand.org.

The research was conducted by the Homeland Security Program within the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment (ISE) Division. Homeland Security Program research supports the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies charged with preventing and mitigating the effects of terrorist activity within U.S. borders.

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